Pocono Preview

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A year ago, the return to Pocono Raceway to the schedule was one of the most anticipated events of the season. It was the first time open-wheel cars had run at the Tricky Triangle, since Danny Sullivan piloted his Penske/Chevy to victory in 1989.

For the next twenty-three years, we watched NASCAR visit the storied and scenic 2.5-mile oval in rural Pennsylvania twice a year, while we were told that there was no way open-wheel cars would ever return. We were told that the track needed too many modifications, which would never be done. Open-wheel fans were left to their memories to conjure up images from the past, when Pocono was part of the Triple Crown of the seventies, along with Indianapolis and the IMS clone – Ontario Motor Speedway.

Never say never – because the series returned to Pocono last year, albeit in a 400-mile format. This year, the Verizon IndyCar Series has extended the distance to the more traditional 500 miles. That makes the current Triple Crown – consisting of Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana – a true trifecta of three 500-milers, although Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka has pulled out as the sponsor of it. I’m still a little confused about whether the Triple Crown still officially exists or not. I think it does, but in name only. I don’t think there is any prize money involved, but I believe the series still recognizes it as an official accomplishment.

The only driver to ever win the Triple Crown was Al Unser in 1978. We will know by this weekend if Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay will still be eligible after Sunday. If he were to win at Pocono, that would create quite the storyline heading into Fontana – along with trying to decide the championship.

I’ll be honest – I was actually a little disappointed in last year’s race at Pocono. I found it a tad bit boring, especially after the record-setting number of lead changes during the Indianapolis 500 less than a couple of months earlier. Perhaps I was expecting too much after so much buildup in my own mind. It was a decent race, but not as compelling as I had hoped.

Unfortunately, it appears many potential attendees for this year’s race felt as I do. Apparently ticket sales have been drastically lower than last year’s race. So much so that track president Brandon Igdalsky said yesterday that getting out of next year’s race in the final year of the contract, is not out of the question. He is very concerned that they will end up losing a substantial amount of money, based on poor ticket sales. Last year’s race was estimated to have between 30,000 and 35,000 fans. I’m not sure what constitutes "scary", as Igdalsky put it, but it must be a low number.

That would be a huge blow to the Verizon IndyCar Series, if that were to happen – for a lot of reasons. The perception it would create could be devastating. Plus, there are very few ovals on the current schedule. Losing what has been touted as a fan favorite would be tough to swallow. Of course, if it is a fan favorite, why haven’t more fans in the Northeast bought tickets? This will be an interesting situation to watch unfold throughout the weekend.

Probably the most noteworthy event on the track from last year’s race was Scott Dixon winning and breaking the Ganassi winless streak for the season. It also began the improbable run to the championship for Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves. Pocono was the first of three wins in a row for Dixon, who also won again with two races to go.

This season, the scenario is similar. Ganassi has no wins and Dixon is behind in championship points. But the one difference this season is that Dixon is very far behind points leader Will Power. Dixon is ninth and 168 points behind Power, with only eight races remaining. The silver lining for Dixon is that two of those eight pay double points, including this weekend. But Dixon can have no more bad luck and he needs to win this weekend, while Will Power suffers some misfortune early in the race to insure that he collects as few points as possible. Otherwise, Dixon can forget about repeating as series champion.

The two drivers that are leading the points, both need to rebound from a very disappointing weekend at Houston. Will Power had a disastrous weekend from start to finish. Helio Castroneves showed great potential for both races, yet had poor finishes. Oddly enough, they left Houston as they arrived – separated by thirty-nine points. Ryan Hunter-Reay sits just two points behind Helio and is right in the thick of things. Even after Sunday’s win, Simon Pagenaud is still fifty-nine points behind Power. Beyond Pagenaud, no one is close enough to Power to overtake him this weekend.

This is a big track with lots of room to pass on the straightaways. Each of the three turns offers a unique challenge to the drivers. James Hinchcliffe started on the front row last year at Pocono, yet he didn’t make it past Turn One. With double-points at stake, it’s very important for a driver to keep their nose clean. Even a not-so-spectacular finish can yield enough points to significantly affect the championship standings.

So who is my pick for this weekend? It’s a driver who has been showing steady improvement each race this season and now appears ready to notch his first open-wheel win in quite a while. He also has far more experience at this track than any other driver in the field. Look for Juan Montoya to be in victory lane at Pocono this Sunday afternoon, once the dust settles.

I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July weekend. Holiday weekend or not, it’s a race weekend, so I’ll have the usual “Random Thoughts” on Monday. Enjoy the race!

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Pocono Preview”

  1. Kyle F. Says:

    You’ve also got to wonder if Road America is paying attention. The fans have been saying for years they want to go back there, but will they actually show up?

  2. George, as you point out, where are all those oval fans when it comes time to race in their respective region. It seems there is an endless line of OVAL LOVERS who perpetually bemoan the dearth of oval track races, but never manage to attend them…

    • billytheskink Says:

      I tire of reading this rhetoric, not because it lacks truth, but because it is too often aimed exclusively at ovals and oval fans when it truly applies to any fan favorite track that has left or not joined the schedule. The reason the series is not at Road America, COTA, Watkins Glen, Cleveland, and the like is really not too different from the reason they are not racing at Michigan and New Hampshire.

      It has been my experience that the fans clamoring for more ovals DO attend or dutifully watch the races on television. There just are not enough of them. So too is it for those dedicated to the road and street races that have had a tenuous place on the schedule.

  3. FROM ANOTHER WEB SITE THAT PROVIDES A FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE OF WHY PEOPLE MAY NOT WISH TO RETURN TO PONCONO.

    Attendance last year was very good, but leaving the track was a nightmare. Between race traffic and folks headed home from their 4th of July holidays a high degree of frustration was encountered. This year the race falls on the same holiday weekend and ominous public statements by the track warn of sub-par attendance expectations and even an attempt to dump the third year. Huh?

    Comment »
    1.
    Dear Defender:
    I made the mistake of visiting the Tricky Triangle for last year’s event and I would never go back for a bunch of reasons…starting with the insane heat of starting this race at midday, which also resulted in my missing the green flag because I was fighting traffic trying to enter the grounds…then there’s the issue of sight lines…I purchased good seats pretty high up and in the middle of the main grandstand and I could see very little of the track…and this is an oval? The lack of banking coupled with a grandstand that desperately needs serious elevation made watching the race like watching a road or street course….only got to see the cars when they passed by the main straight…and then there was the nightmare of leaving this facility and dealing with the fascists who posed as cops and security officers who were hell bent on misdirecting traffic back to the highway…if I did not disregard a fascists directions and bolt through the parking area illegally, I would probably still be waiting to reach the interstate….the concessions were poor and the crowd was not that large (plenty of empties all around us)….and since ABC is not broadcasting this event on over the air TV, why would the series start at noon on Sunday? No thanks for Pocono, I am on my way to the Iowa Corn Indy in two weeks where I am told there’s good sight lines, plenty of passing action and a night start.

  4. sejarzo Says:

    Pocono is certainly not as remote as Watkins Glen, but the impression still exists in many fans’ minds that there are not enough good lodging options within a short drive of the track…and WGI and the series concluded that a July 4 weekend date was far from optimal as sponsors/fans prefer to be home with family to celebrate rather than at a race. I’m thus not surprised at all that after the novelty of the return to Long Pond wore off that ticket sales are down dramatically. And as Kyle noted…if Chicagoland and KY died due to lack of fan support here in the “oval heartland”, both within 2-3 hours of IMS, is a track 10-12 hours away going to find long-term success? Will fans who previously attended the Baltimore street race/party make the 3 hour drive to attend a race at a remote oval with fewer additional activities?

  5. Yannick Says:

    Here’s very much looking forward to this weekend’s race at Pocono. Having watched last year’s race on a webstream somewhere, I found it to be pretty exciting, especially when the surprise kicked in that it was going to be won by the engine which had the lower fuel consumption.
    Here’s hoping they will have a high attendance at the gate on Sunday at Pocono so this event will return. It’s a classic for sure.

    Too bad I cannot attend any IndyCar race at this point, as I live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean …

    Oh, and by the way, I’m impressed by the progress Montoya has made this season – and he is my pick to win it, too.

  6. In the Indy Car glory days pre-split the core fan base was made up of oval track fans. When the split occurred the all oval Tony George series did noting to exite the oval car fans. The series was bland and boring. The cars were decrepit and the drivers unknowns. This core base went back to its roots in dirt track racing and stayed. The current fan base seems to be more interested in who’s playing the pre-race concert than the racing. Poor management from the top down is responsible.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    While the location of Pocono, traffic problems there, Tony George, and likely Obama are all being blamed for the anticipated drop in attendence sunday, I think it is accurate to say that attendence at most tracks, large and small, and in all levels of racing throughout the world is dropping. So while crowds of 35-40,000 at ovals on the circuit were once the norm, the reality is that crowds today are closer to 25,000 and likely to stay that way IMHO. I think IndyCar needs to adjust their business model to reflect that. I don’t think you can sustain a series while jumping to new tracks every 2-3 years.

    There are lots of reasons for declining attendence at racing venues related to how people obtain entertainment these days.

    Another reason IMHO is the quality of the TV experience. In many ways watching a race on TV is so much more entertaining than it used to be. Watching duels from in-car cameras at road or street courses is mesmerizing. So, if it is a hassle getting to and from a track, or too hot, or too cloudy, or whatever, fans may choose to watch the race from the comfort of their homes.

    I will be at Road America this month for the vintage sports car races, I will be at Sun Prairie for the Badger Midgets, and I will be at the Milwaukee Mile in august as I have been for about 60 years. I will try to pry as many of my friends away from their TV or apps as I can to go along, but that is not as easy as it used to be.

  8. Brandon Igdalsky needs to do his job as a promoter instead of bitching about getting out of contracts early. With that attitude I wouldn’t let a promoter like him have a McCartney concert because it wouldn’t sell out and those shows sell out in 10 minutes. Bottom line and in my opinion, something isn’t right. As a fan, I would be there this weekend if the track was nearby. I’m use to the heat and as an example. Like some of you, I was in the stands at IMS for the 2012 Indianapolis 500 when the temps were close to 100 degrees. I was also in the pits where the sun does not set until well after the race. My son and I enjoyed every minute.

    My pick for Pocono is Ryan Hunter-Reay.

  9. Last years Pocono was my favorite race of the year. Playing the strategy game along with Ganassi, you could see that they had the field covered, amazingly before the announcers realized it. I guess to each his own. I still do not understand where all the oval lovers are.

    Dixon to repeat.

  10. gbatalis Says:

    Watching the hot dog eating contest yesterday knowing that both Carpenter and Dixon were judges thinking that espn might interview or at least show them. Of course not. It’s a shame as the hot dog contest usually gets a decent rating and easy way to cross promote but wait espn shows they have no desire to grow the product outside the Indy 500. It also wouldn’t have hurt to mention the Pocono race since short drive from NYC but wait the broadcast on nbcsn so no motivation to mention for that reason either.

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